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Caleb Williams: College Football’s NIL Innovator

How the USC transfer QB has redefined the NIL landscape

In one short month, USC transfer quarterback Caleb Williams changed college football, on and off the field.

By moving from Oklahoma — where, as a true freshman, he took the QB1 reins from Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler — and landing at USC with former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley, Williams has made one of the traditionally strongest college football brands relevant again and a contender for next season’s playoff.

However, Williams’ strategic NIL dealings have been just as impressive, previewing the future of how college athletes will build their personal business portfolios.

The Caleb Brand

2021 Accomplishments

  • Consensus Freshman All-American 
  • First true freshman to start at Oklahoma since 1990
  • Oklahoma record for most TDs thrown (6) in game by a true freshman
  • Led Oklahoma to the largest comeback victory (21 points) in Red River Showdown history
  • Big 12 leader in passing efficiency rating

Recent NIL Deals

  • Ac+ion Water
  • Beats By Dre
  • Faculty
  • Fanatics
  • Hawkins Way Capital

In his first few days as a Trojan, Williams appeared on “Good Morning America” to promote his anti-bullying Caleb Cares Foundation and announced major NIL deals with two of the hottest brands in sports: Beats by Dre — joining Shedeur Sanders of Jackson State on their NIL roster — and Fanatics for officially licensed autographed memorabilia. His first media appearance as a Trojan and both NIL deals are national news in their own ways, but what came next set Williams apart from every other college athlete in the country. 

While most NIL deals are traditional marketing partnerships, Williams instead invested his own money into male grooming brand Faculty, becoming part-owner and the face of future marketing campaigns, product collaborations, and revenue partnerships.

Believed to be the first investment in an existing company by a college athlete in the NIL era — in addition to the first NIL partnership in the men’s grooming, skin care and personal care space — Williams’ stake in Faculty elevates him to innovator status across college athletics, paving the way for the evolution of NIL.

“Williams investing in Faculty shows the breadth of possibility for college athletes through their NIL,” sports lawyer and associate professor at Pepperdine University Alicia Jessop told Boardoom. “The deal is an example of a college athlete using endorsement and investment opportunities to not only build his personal brand, but take control of his financial future.”

Williams, however, recognizes that most college athletes do not have the opportunity to invest in companies this early in their careers, telling Good Morning America: “I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my childhood to be in certain situations in my life. So no, [NIL considerations during the transfer window] wasn’t really that big for me. But I do get to do some some cool partnerships.”

Matt Siegel, partner at athlete private investment platform Patricof Co, told Boardroom:

“College athletes are a bit different than professional athletes — most notably financially — and their personal business strategy needs to be a long-term one. Rather than focus on writing checks, college athletes should place far more emphasis on overall business and investment education, networking, and building the right relationships, especially in the NIL era.”

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Williams’ connectivity to the male grooming space in general and Faculty’s nail polish offerings in particular, make this a relationship and investment built on authenticity. The signal caller garnered headlines and social media conversation last season with his frequent nail polish on game days, including a “Horns Down” design during Red River, where Williams led the Sooners to a historic comeback against Texas.

“This is a meaningful deal, as it aligns with Williams’ personal background and sense of style,” added Jessop, noting that his mother is a nail technician. “Oftentimes, a great investment strategy is to buy into products you use, which is what Williams did here.”

Continuing to innovate his NIL portfolio with another first-of-its-kind deal, Williams partnered with Hawkins Way Capital, a Beverly Hills-based real estate private equity fund that manages close to $2 billion in assets. Partners of the firm told the Los Angeles Times that they plan to educate Williams about the real estate industry overall and potentially partner on future investments.

“The first thing a young athlete needs to understand is that ‘business’ and ‘investing’ are not monolithic categories and they should surround themselves with world-class advisors who are true specialists,” Siegel said. “There’s no question that college stars can absolutely affect the trajectory of a given brand, particularly if the connection is an authentic one. There’s a danger, however, that college athletes get involved with the wrong companies at the wrong time and end up diluting their brand in the process. Young athletes now need to establish a professional team earlier than ever so they have the resources to make the right long-term decisions.”

Although Williams has refuted the notion that NIL played a part in his decision to move from Norman to Los Angeles, the new opportunities that come with living in Hollywood and the connectivity to a strong alumni network at USC cannot be ignored.

“Los Angeles is the second biggest media market in the United States and the epicenter of creativity and ingenuity,” Jessop said. “Like professional athletes before them, college athletes now have broader decisions to consider in what teams they sign with.”

While Williams overtook the top spot on the Oklahoma depth chart this past season, he faces historic competition in the NIL space from a fellow signal caller, as Alabama’s Bryce Young is the first Heisman Trophy winner to return to school since Lamar Jackson in 2017.

Even before kicking off his award-winning season and his first as Alabama’s QB1, Young’s NIL portfolio was “almost seven figures,” per Coach Nick Saban, and has grown with such partnerships as Cash App, Subway, Leaf, Wild Card, and Onyx, among others.

Having a full offseason as “Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young” will certainly continue his meteoric rise off the field and set the NIL pace for Williams and other college stars to follow.

But while Young has “Heisman Trophy winner” attached to his name — enhancing his personal brand for the rest of his career, no matter how he fares on the field — Williams must perform for his new team to continue to evolve his business.

The true sophomore-to-be will certainly be among the Heisman favorites next season alongside Young and 2021 finalist C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, and expectations for Williams, Riley, and the Trojans are as high as they’ve been since the Peter Carroll era.

Regardless of how Williams and USC fare next season, he’s put the building blocks in place for a secure financial future and drafted a road map for collegiate athletes to follow as the NIL landscape continues to evolve from its infancy.

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